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Brooklyn quietly leads the world in producing squash champions

Linda Elriani, who was ranked World No. 3 in 2000, now runs one of the country’s most prestigious junior squash programs at the Brooklyn Heights Casino. Photo courtesy of Linda Elriani

Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Brooklyn Heights is widely known for many things: historic preservation; high real estate values; serving as home to numerous lawyers, investment bankers and writers; squash...SQUASH?

We're not referring to the vegetable. The internationally popular racquet sport played in a small room (18.5 x 21 feet) with a small, hollow rubber ball has been called the perfect urban game and was ranked the number one healthiest sport by Forbes in 2003.

Brooklyn Heights became a mecca for squash during the 1970s after a husband and wife team developed a vibrant junior program at the Heights Casino starting in the late ’60s.

Largely unheralded in the public eye, the private club built in 1904 had active programs for adults in tennis and squash for many years.

But Fred and Carol Weymuller developed a program for youngsters of all ages. Thus, children from the Heights and Cobble Hill could walk to the club for organized lessons before and after school. The program thrived, and along with it, the club.

The Weymullers were the first to take junior players to the Nationals. They established the first summer squash camp and spearheaded group teaching as a way to bring youth into the world of squash, the U.S. Squash website states.

Squash pro at the Heights Casino, Linda Elriani, is currently finishing up her seventh year at the club. Originally a professional squash player from the United Kingdom, Elriani reached a ranking of third in the world in 2000. She attributes the club’s junior program’s success to several things, but mostly to the fostering of a community-like atmosphere.

“We try to have all the kids working together,” she said. “We have a mentoring program where we try to get the older kids to help the younger kids and support them. We don’t want it to be like a factory where they come in, they practice and they leave. We want it to be a community with the club, which is something we keep working on. I hope that’s why people like coming here.”

Unlike several other squash clubs within New York City, Elriani said the Heights Casino likes to focus most of its efforts on its junior program.

“Some have much more adult orientated squash programs, but here it’s mostly about the juniors and building that program and helping the kids be the best players they can be.”

Heights Casino squash pro Linda Elriani with the club's 2014 youth squash Gold Nationals competitors. Photo courtesy of Linda Elriani.

Reflecting on her days as a young squash player in England, Elriani said one of the main differences between squash programs in the U.S. — specifically Brooklyn Heights — and in the U.K. is the accessible location of clubs.

“I think they are very lucky here that they have world class coaches and they have a club where they can walk to, and because of the situation of the club in Brooklyn they come and they’ll have another ten kids they can practice with on a regular basis,” she said. “In England you really have to travel more to play with kids of your standard and get world class coaching… I would have loved to have this on my doorstep.”

Besides the fact that the location of the squash clubs in Brooklyn are more accessible than those in other countries, Elriani said there are less “member-only” clubs in England. These allow people to play squash whenever they please, bringing more people to the game causing it to grow in popularity, which she said is of course a benefit.

Although the largest and perhaps the most luxurious, the Heights Casino does not contain the only squash program in the area. Because of the game’s popularity, programs have developed and thrived at several other clubs throughout Brooklyn.

In such a tight-knit neighborhood though, the separation of one club from another is never fully present. Josh Easdon, director of squash at the New York Sports Center in Cobble Hill, grew up in the Heights Casino program and   won the  nationally-recognized Baird Haney tournament there in 1989.

Easdon, the creator and director of Josh Squash, a junior squash program, said he has seen a tremendous growth in his youth squash players over the past few years. Last season he provided 27 lessons a week, and in the upcoming season starting in September he is already expecting over 100 kids to be in the program.

The strong community feel is a large factor in the success of Easdon’s program as well, he said, but it mainly stems from his highly structured curriculum.

“We build up so that every week everybody in the program is working on the same theme, but the lesson plans are adapted to the level of the player,” he said. “I always make sure kids know what they are working on so that it’s sinking in. In other courses they work on stuff but it’s not as specific, whereas I have very specific lesson plans designed.”

Josh Easdon, director of squash at the New York Sports Center in Cobble Hill. Eagle photo by Kathryn Cardin

 

IMPORTANCE OF TOURNAMENTS

The Heights Casino is famous in the squash world for establishing some of the most prestigious tournaments for professionals. Many Brooklynites don’t realize that the top players in the world journey to Brooklyn annually for both the Johnson and the Weymuller. The historic Johnson, a pro men’s doubles tournament, started in 1938 and is the first Doubles Open (that is, “Open to professionals “ ) in the world. The Weymuller, named for Carol Weymuller, is now in its fourth decade and brings top women players from all corners of the globe. The Baird Haney, named after a popular Casino professional who was killed in a car crash on Manhattan Bridge, attracts the top junior players from the U.S.  Plus, having built a separate junior practice and tournament facility off Pineapple Walk, the Casino also hosts several other key metropolitan junior events each year.

Carol Weymuller, who, with her husband Fred, developed a vibrant junior program at the Heights Casino in the late ’60s. Eagle file photo.

The Baird Haney last year drew over 200 juniors from all over the U.S.. In order to accommodate the large number of players, the tournament uses other squash courts around town to hold matches. Easdon’s is one of them.

Even though Easdon himself does not put much emphasis on tournaments, he said working with Elriani and The Heights Casino is an essential part in building the sport of squash in Brooklyn.

“The Casino starts kids at the age of seven and I start at the age of five, so some of the younger siblings that aren’t ready to play at the Casino will come play with me and then come on and play at both clubs when they are ready,” he said. “In some ways I compliment their program.”

Alicia McConnell (left), who for 15 years was the undefeated American hardball champion, and Carol Weymuller. Eagle file photo.

According to the U.S. Squash website, junior squash participation has grown 400 percent since 2007, and continues to grow between 20 and 30 percent annually.

As if the world of squash was not already linked to itself by just a couple of degrees of separation, it turns out that  head squash pro at the Eastern Athletic Club in Brooklyn Heights, Adam Walker, built the Annex for the Heights Casino in 2000.

Walker came to the U.S. from England during the peak of the transition from hardball squash to softball squash. He spent his first years in the states building squash courts for not only the Heights Casino, but also Yale, UPenn and other colleges and cities across the country.

“I had some pretty large supporters when I came and applied for this job,” Walker said of his director position at the club. “I have a bit of a reputation for rebuilding clubs when they’re on their last leg and injecting a bit of life into it.”

Like both the Heights Casino and New York Sports Club, the Eastern Athletic Club is also notable for its junior squash program.

“Anyone can join, you don’t have to be a member,” Walker said. “Our squash program is huge. There are six schools that I coach out of here and each school is a minimum of 15 kids. Packer [Collegiate Institute] is very pro-squash. We took them to nationals last year; they played D1 with a co-ed team in the boys division and did really well.”

With squash established at every Ivy League school, Walker attributes some of the prominence of the game to the fact that squash is a sport of politeness.

“It’s a gentleman’s game, which is why colleges like it,” he said. “If you can be taught squash you can be taught anything. If you play well, then you’ve worked very hard to learn fundamentals and court movement and ettiquete — it’s a small space and each player is carrying a weapon. So the game becomes as much about rules of engagement as ability…..juniors learn they must represent their coach, their school, their club with sportsmanship no matter what the outcome.”

Aside from the many elite clubs that host squash practice and training in New York City, City Squash in the Bronx and Street Squash in Harlem offer a different approach to the sport.

The self-proclaimed “youth enrichment programs” offer academic tutoring, community service and college preparation as well as squash instruction to economically challenged public school students in Harlem, the Bronx and Newark for no cost, according to their websites.

Carol Weymuller (back), Alicia McConnell(middle) and Mary Hulbert, a Heights junior star who went on to play and coach in college. Eagle file photo

Adding Brooklyn to the list, Easdon is in the beginning stages of planning to open an urban squash program in the borough.

“We’ve been looking at properties in Brooklyn...and we are piloting this fall out of New York Sports Club in Cobble Hill a Brooklyn urban junior squash program,” Easdon said. “What we want to do is create an urban program in Brooklyn that would coexist with the Josh Squash program. It would have this big pool of people playing together and would ultimately really grow the sport.”

Perhaps a well-kept secret over the past half century, Brooklyn Heights has been a long-time center for squash. In recent years, however, the junior squash programs have taken off, providing kids with quality instruction and access to the schools of their dreams. Whether in private lessons, group tournaments or with a side of college prep, it seems squash for Brooklyn youth will continue to thrive and expand in upcoming years.

July 3, 2014 - 10:00am


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